Friends and Colleagues Remember Michael Sorkin
Michael Sorkin—an architect, author, teacher, and one of the most distinctive voices for social justice and sustainability in the design of the urban environment—died on March 26, 2020, at the age of 71, after contracting coronavirus.
Read our obituary for Sorkin and find tributes from his friends and colleagues—including Robert Ivy, Thom Mayne, Michael Murphy, Joseph Giovannini, Abby Suckle, Nader Tehrani, Marta Gutman, Craig Hodgetts, Weiss/Manfredi co-founders Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi, Maitland Jones, and Audrey Matlock—below.
Michael Sorkin had a mind I loved to engage. Few people could match his rapier-like wit, his eloquent language, his fierce analytical eye. Somehow he found words and phrases to sum up a thought or an idea that could floor you.
Michael, for all his prickliness, loved—loved the city, loved the people of the city, loved the built and imagined world, loved students. We won't see his like soon.
Thom Mayne, Founding Partner, Morphosis
In the 1980s, when we were all starving, Michael would put me up in his apartment in New York, where I would occupy an unforgettable Pesce Feltri chair while we talked late into the night about the subject we both loved, architecture. Exhausted and enfolded in the wings of that chair, I would sleep and then awaken as though no time had passed before we were at it again. His voice, then as it was yesterday, was incisive and fearless and sometimes stinging. He challenged me repeatedly with words I often didn’t want to hear. But I trusted him—his comments were clearly coming from a place of generosity and honesty and commitment to his project which was, finally, about social justice. He spoke of our awesome responsibilities, he spoke relentlessly of the power of architecture to change lives, he never stopped insisting that we must never stop fighting—for what we believed in, for a resistance of the status quo. His prodigious intelligence combined with his obvious love of humanity gave his words a rare gravitas and power. Finally, though, I ask myself why I am thinking about that room, that chair, that time—and I realize that it’s the gift of connection with people that made Michael so special. I’m thinking about that chair, those hours, that mind—and I, like every single person I’ve spoken with today am undone—feeling lost in a fog of sadness whose edges I can’t quite find.
Michael Murphy, Founding Principal, MASS Design Group
I first met Michael in 2011 at my thesis presentation at the GSD, and he was on the jury. My topic was Space and Society, a progressive publication of architects from the 1970s led by Giancarlo De Carlo, who advocated for social and political responsibility. I had discovered it on my own, but Michael, not surprisingly, had been a frequent contributor to it. I was nervous about his response but instead of the familiar gutting and rejection common to architecture school crits, he just smiled wide, raised a clenched fist and said, “Right on, comrade!” He was a hero of mine now, just by being himself: funny, righteous, and kind.
A few years later, in 2016, I was invited to participate in a series called “Cocktails and Conversations” at the AIA chapter in New York City. This series invites a speaker to choose an interviewer for a public conversation. I was nervous to face a New York crowd, so I invited Michael to prod me on stage and talk broadly about activism in architecture. But by the time of the event in mid-November, the world had turned upside-down and Donald Trump had been elected president. Never to be constrained by rules, Michael rejected the planned format and invited other activists to join us on stage. He had drafted a ten-point manifesto, and he turned a polite conversation into a chaotic, unbridled, therapeutic town hall to bring up the issues he cared about most: the carceral state, environmental destruction, the privatization of the public sphere against the public good, and the complicity of our profession in structures that reinforce inequity.
Michael’s life-long message was suddenly felt viscerally by all the architects in the room. “What will you do now?” He seemed to be asking. “Will you carry the torch? Will you link the wisdom of our years of work to the world you build tomorrow?” Michael was a sage, a visionary, a teacher, and also a mensch. He often said that he’d love to make architecture “less evil, more kind.”
This past December, we sat down over tea—he was surviving another bout of cancer treatment so martinis, his drink of choice, were not on the menu. We talked about his legacy, and he asked me who would fill the gaps in public discourse, in new practice models, in writing and criticism.
Sadly, he was asking the right question: who is there now to step up?
Joseph Giovannini, Architect and Critic
Michael and I were friends, colleagues, and rivals for 50 years, writing student manifestos at the GSD, sharing toasted bagels on Broadway after graduation, swimming in southern California, tiffing over his coverage of the Decon show at MoMA (1988), getting gray gradually over the decades. Once he stayed at my place in Venice in Los Angeles for a week, so I saw his writing technique close up. He wrote in sentences, maybe a paragraph at most, then had to get up and spend his nervous energy, which he did by cleaning up the place, including the dishes, and mowing the grass. He fed my cat. By the end of his article, the house and yard were ship-shape, and the article was the usual smart piece but surprisingly seamless despite all the household interruptions.
He was SO smart that he was always tripping over his IQ, distracted by the next, better idea or bend in his long career. There were so many Michaels: the comedian, the theorist, the empathetic and inspirational teacher, the urbanist, the professor, the friend, the husband, the moralist, the bon vivant, and of course the architect who didn’t build nearly enough. The common denominator to the entire vast Sorkin enterprise with all its moving parts—essays, articles, urban plans, environmentalism, architecture, teaching, lecturing— was his driving intelligence, which he delivered with humor and sound judgment. Until COVID, he was unstoppable, a fission reaction of creative energy. He made a huge difference and dialed the field to a more thoughtful place on its moral compass.
I’ve known Michael forever; he always had an interesting and often original perspective on our profession and its practitioners, which I will miss. Of course, he was also great fun. He once was on a panel at the old Architectural League, in the Villard Houses in New York, and he started by opening a bottle of champagne, which he’d brought in a brown paper bag. Then he pulled out a flute and poured himself a glass. He announced to the room that he had just gotten married that afternoon at City Hall. I have no clue why he thought to celebrate by being on a panel, nor do I know whether he really had a big wedding in a suitable location. But it was certainly an eventful symposium. I don’t even remember what the topic was.
A tribute to Michael Sorkin requires words, the very instruments he crafted with meticulous discipline and mischievous delight—alas, something none of us can do justice to with any measure of parity.
I followed Sorkin’s thinking from his early days at The Village Voice, where he served as its architectural critic, the very same years he taught at The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at The Cooper Union. I was still a student at the time, but his articles were an event to which we all looked forward, each taking on the canons and conventions of the discipline. For a decade, from 1983 to 1993, he taught alongside all the classic thinkers who we know to be Cooper Union—among them Diana Agrest, Raimund Abraham, Diane Lewis, Anthony Candido, Richard Henderson, Michael Webb, Ricardo Scofidio and of course the dean, John Hejduk. While he taught in the second and fourth year studios, as well as Thesis, he was already beginning to build his intellectual arsenal around the theme of urbanism, the very topic that launched his first semester at our school—a seminar on Town Planning. His focus on the environment, sustainability, the politics of public space and urban culture, as well as his critique of modernist urban planning became the cornerstone of his efforts to come—both in teaching and his practice, Terreform and Michael Sorkin Studio.
A graduate of MIT in 1974, Sorkin’s thesis, titled “Some Impressions of the Department,” was a reflection not only on MIT pedagogy, but on architectural education in general. His interest in teaching methodologies led him eventually to Cooper Union, where the “education of an architect” was the very preoccupation of the school. His continued emphasis on pedagogy led to his many academic appointments, among them at Harvard’s GSD, Yale, the Architectural Association and, of course, The City College of New York. The work of his own students was a testament to his legacy. With the new Cooper Union Student Work Collection database, some of it, fortunately, can be accessed here.
An architect, critic, teacher and polemicist, Sorkin understood the delicate and complicated relationship between images and words. His practice displayed this dual commitment through a preoccupation with representation at large, both visual and literary. His architectural projects were composed as polemics, imagining projected worlds, visions and futures that defied the very conventions with which he was confronted in the profession. Still, it was his command of language and mastery of rhetoric that made him the eloquent architect he became. Words flowed seemingly effortlessly with incisive precision, belying the actual intellectual efforts that preceded his theoretical labor. He reminded us that ideas come in many forms, but moreover that they do not exist outside of the medium in which they are communicated. His words were the instruments of his ideas and he demonstrated that his ideas relied on the very lexicon he was able to manipulate. He made us love language and the allusive nature of meanings, references, and the worlds of associations they impart.
A champion of the city and the social vocation of architecture, Sorkin’s life was cut short, the result of complications from the coronavirus; ironically, the very phenomenon that has taken our access away from the city, and our ability to congregate, is the very same thing that has led us back to language to unite us in communication. Both of these worlds belong to Michael Sorkin, and lamentably, we will not be able to enjoy his last words on the city, evacuated as we know it today.
I saw Michael Sorkin about two weeks ago at the Spitzer School of Architecture, the 9th of March. I didn’t know that this committee meeting would be the last time we would see each other. Whoever does?
We sat together, not giving much thought to social distancing—no one was sick; no one was coughing; no one had a fever—and took care of the matters at hand. The pandemic had started to stir in New York City, beginning to wreak havoc, but had not yet derailed the architecture school and the city that Michael loved. Looking back, I’ve asked myself, was there any premonition in the air of the tragedy to come?
Michael and I exchanged a few words, then a poignant glance, about an elderly colleague who had passed away weeks before. Both saddened and annoyed, he mentioned that he was forced to postpone a trip that he planned to take with his wife, Joan Copjec, to celebrate their lives together. He asked, when would they be able to travel again? And where? Not answerable then, nor now.
My heart goes out to Joan and other members of Michael’s family. I can’t begin to imagine their grief and sorrow.I’ve lost a friend and a colleague I admired, someone I first met when I was in architecture school. Over the many years since, I worked with him, wrote for him, taught with him, debated him, disagreed with him, read him, and most of all learned from him. He was an architect, a writer, and a thinker who pushed us to be better at what we do; a lover of cities and city life. He was also an adamant defender of public education, who, like his beloved friend and mentor, the late Marshall Berman, stayed put at City College in the face of temptations by richer universities, and built our great architecture school. I’m profoundly sad that we are bereft of his voice and his person; a man so vital, so smart, so witty, so caring.
But I’m also angry—at the government that failed to protect him, and us—a government that has for so long failed to act in the interest of all its citizens. Maybe it’s too soon to say this, but I have a hunch that Michael would approve. His death should not have happened.
In 1915, the night before Joe Hill, famous laborer, songwriter, and Industrial Workers of the World union organizer, faced a firing squad on a trumped-up charge of murder, he wrote Big Bill Haywood, president of the IWW. This is what he said: “Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize.”
To Michael, in solidarity forever.
I’ve never crossed swords with Michael. Not because I didn’t want to. I was itching to dig deeper into his thinking, and debate seemed the most exhilarating way to do it—even just to test my convictions, but I was never able to get to the “left” of him. He was, without a doubt the voice of architecture with a purpose. Not just any purpose, but one that met his unflinching hard-ass belief in architecture’s role in reshaping society. And that came with a lot of baggage.
From his early days as a stringer for the Village Voice, itself unremitting in its castigation of capitalism, pretension, and politesse, with a roster including Nat Hentoff, Robert Christgau, and folks like Andrew Sarris, Michael stuck out. With vigorous, take-no-prisoners prose and passionate advocacy, Michael was a quick-drawing, skilled outlaw, ready and willing to take on the elite architectural establishment in defense of the urban liberties he considered under siege.
All of this belied the deep-seated humanism that coursed through his veins. Michael wanted cities to work for people, wanted architects to put the urban environment first, and to cease their preoccupation with spires and ornamental gewgaws. He envisioned a ground-up role for buildings and proposed countless variations in his office for urban master-plans designed to force architecture’s hand. Those designs, he called them “unsolicited master plans,” were masterworks of purposeful chaos intended to break down traditional hierarchies and promote individuality on every level. Often resembling petri-dish views of massive swaths of urbanity, with fractal-like borders, Sorkin’s designs envisioned neighborhoods brushing up against one another with permeable borders designed to encourage random interaction.
“Exquisite Corpse” stands out from his catalogue of more than twenty books as the definitive urban parlor game. By recognizing the blunt relationships block to block that so often yield rewarding results, he implicitly challenged the long-standing priorities that rule urban designers. In a sense, by ordaining a compound, rather than a mix, and turning long-held beliefs into failed strategies, he had hoped to re-energize his favorite city, and establish a new template for developers.
I often wonder if he had indulged his affection for Los Angeles, if SCI-Arc had gone from mild flirtation to serious courtship, and if City College were bereft of his presence, whether his brand of critical thinking would have flourished out here. He needed an adversary, not a collaborator. He needed to be out on a limb not in a comfortable nest, and New York provided the perfect scaffold for his thinking.
I’m still trying to fathom a world of architecture without Michael’s deeply generous spirit and restless intellect. His words and wit were the tip of a deep well of humanity and conviction that architecture and urban design mattered. Social and infrastructural networks were cast as joyous cartwheels and this spirit underpinned all the unsolicited master plans he proposed.
I met Michael in the mid-80s when he needed a few extra hands to document his proposal for the Roger Williams School of Architecture Competition. A group of us had just graduated, and, with the promise of good meals, we all received more than adequate compensation for the adventure of working with him. Dinners roved from the studio to various friends homes, including a memorable dinner at Alan Buchsbaum’s loft. There, the debates were heated and affectionately lobbed across too many topics to remember, but he cast a conspiratorial eye to all the interns he brought along, making sure we knew we were included whether we could follow the threads of conversation or not.
In the years since then, he had the capacity to bring you mid-sentence into the particular urban or literary adventure he was in the midst of, and was equally interested in whatever journey you might be on. Bumping into him a few months ago in Tribeca with a request for advice led to a series of brief emails from him, all with the subject heading, “One more idea.” Reading these emails last week brought tears to my eyes; those subject headings were so emblematic of the conversations we all wish we could continue with him.
Michael Manfredi, Co-Founder, Weiss/Manfredi
Michael was a friend. He was a passionate, witty, tireless, and erudite advocate for a socially driven architecture—one that reconciled both ethics and aesthetics. One of the pleasures of teaching urban design at the GSD was having Michael on reviews. During one student’s presentation, a critic spoke at length on the practical failures embedded in her proposal. Michael leaned in and countered the observation, discerning a powerful ethical and ecological agenda in the project; his expansive dissertation on the project’s values changed the course of the student’s review and elevated the altitude of the conversation that followed. My last memory of him was sharing a cab to Logan airport after a long day of reviews. The delayed flight led to a spirited conversation over martinis near the gate, where the late departure created space for the gift of his friendship. What a loss—I miss him already.
Maitland Jones, Founding Partner, Deborah Berke Partners
Michael was my studio critic at Yale in 1991. His studio was the best I took, if I may be honest. It had everything: intellectual adventure, humor, team spirit, a lot of work, and an almost unseemly amount of fun. Michael forced us to work collaboratively and interactively, swapping work even, to suppress our individual urges in favor of a collective vision. We rebelled. It was unruly and weird. Michael had a fond eye for the weird.
Michael hired me to teach with him in Vienna in 1993 and 1994, where he was the nascent professor of the Institut für Städtebau at the Academy of Fine Arts. I was his Assistent, a well-paid if low-prestige assignment. Teaching with Michael put everything mysterious about his Yale studio in focus. It was about his trust in the people. He saw his friendships, his collaborations, his studio, and his students, as drafts in his study of urban design through social discourse: Great cities find their forms through compact. (From Dump the Trump, 1985. Ahem.) This is not a digression; it was in the studio that his razor wit, staggering smarts, and humanity aligned around a few simple quests: social purpose, environmentalism, and exalting the city as our greatest, most out of control collective artifact. And our time together was characterized by his generosity: a time well spent in the urbs: hanging out with our students and friends in cafes and the like. A Gruppenspiel, to use his word.
It’s terrible to lose Michael. We need him now. All Covid-19 deaths are tragic, and perhaps they will come to be understood as an indictment of a reckless anti-city tilt. That idea makes Michael’s death a terrible and unfair irony.
I have noticed that many have weighed in on Sorkin the critic, and he was an extraordinary one, but he was also much more. Although never registered, he was an architect and urbanist in the truest sense and he was my dear friend.
I was introduced to Michael in the early 80’s through his writings in the Village Voice where he weighed in on some of the most important architectural and urban design issues facing the city; coalescing the voices of citizens and colleagues who support a city for all New Yorkers over one for bureaucrats, politicians and developers. I always looked forward to reading his exquisitely crafted criticisms. With wit and toughness, he said the things many of us wished we knew how to say half as well. He was widely revered by students and peers as an astute critic and teacher; one who spoke truth to power without fear of retribution. Like many others, I looked up to him.
I got to know Michael years later when he and his wife Joan moved into my Tribeca neighborhood. We favored many of the same haunts and often met after work and on weekends to chat over martinis, dinners and half-priced wine specials at Edwards. It was during these years that I got to know Michael as a kind and caring person, a true public advocate and dedicated architectural practitioner, whose work was a solution-oriented call to action. We rarely discussed architectural theory, but talked about our projects, our practices, our students and how to make all of this work better. Michael cared deeply about his community. He was the first to offer help in times of need and loved to connect like-minded people, always addressing his group emails to “comrades.” He was a true architect and a champion of public life.
AND he was one of the funniest people I have ever known. He always faced adversity with his sharp wit. He was blatantly honest but never mean. He diffused blame by cleverly calling out the absurd. One weekend, he enlisted a realtor friend and me to accompany him posing as prospective buyers for some of the controversial super-tall apartment building units in lower Manhattan. The purposed was to collect intel for and article he was writing. As we peered from a big bay window in the new Ritz tower toward the Woolworth building, Michael said to the realtor “pity that thing is in the way of our view.” The realtor agreed. Michael responded with his classic crooked smile that I will miss forever.